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Is there any doubt that the American League East hosts 3 of baseball’s 7 best teams?
By completing a shocking three-game sweep of the Chicago Cubs Thursday evening, the Tampa Bay Rays moved all alone into the No. 3 spot for the best record in the game.
A seven-game winning streak has propelled the New York Yankees to 7th in the majors and 4th in the AL, just 3.5 behind Tampa and 5 behind…
Boston, which continues to roll along and is just percentage points from seizing the top spot in the majors.
But there are two playoff spots for these three teams. Whose out?
New York Yankees
Positive: Lineup, which is operating at full strength for the first time this season, is coming together. The big stars are playing exactly as they should, not over their heads or anything that would lead you to think this winning streak is more fluke than fact regarding the long-term prognosis in the Bronx.
False Positive: The rotation can’t be expected to hold up at this level, can it? Does anyone really believe Mike Mussina and Andy Pettitte are going to provide an ERA around 4 over their next respective 90 innings? With Pettitte, it’s possible, but the odds say Mussina isn’t likely to walk 1 per 10 innings over that time. As the walks go up, the ERA will as well, and since I’ve failed to mention that ace Chien-Ming Wang is essentially out for the season, the Yankees can not afford to have Mussina fall off.
Negative: The bullpen sucks. Flat out sucks. Mariano Rivera is a first ballot Hall of Famer that somehow continues to improve as he closes in on age 40, but after that the Yankees are hoping Kyle Farnsworth and Edwar Ramirez get their act together and Brian Bruney gets healthy. Brian Cashman is even making those excuses to the press, trying to pass of Farnsworth and Ramirez’s combined 3 home runs allowed in 2 innings Wednesday as an anomaly, choosing instead to praise their stuff. He’s smarter than that and he’ll have no choice but to acquire a reliever in the next couple of weeks.
False Negative: Derek Jeter is not this bad. Yes, he’s older, and the trends seemed to predict a fall this year, but not to a level where he’s below replacement player level. As I said before, the lineup is going to continue producing like it has recently as long as its collectively healthy. Add Jeter OPS’ing, say, 850 in the 2nd half, and the Yanks will be an offensive juggernaut.
Tampa Bay Rays
Positive: They have the best 1-2 punch in baseball at the front end of their rotation. James Shields and Scott Kazmir provide such a different look at unmatched level of performance that it should scare the living crap out of all AL teams that these guys could be in the playoffs starting four games of a five-game series. And of course, as I’ve said before, this should not be surprising because Kazmir has been an ace for a while now and Shields has just continued along the path charted by the previous 300 or so innings he had coming into this season. Again…I don’t care if Dice-K gets healthy or Joba starts dominating or Ervin Santana and Joe Saunders keep pulling pixie dust out of their asses, NOBODY has the 1-2 to match Tampa.
False Positive: The bullpen is solid, but it’s not as good as the numbers suggest. Dan Wheeler has gotten his act together and is much more efficient than he was in previous seasons, but he is not going to keep his ERA under 2. Troy Percival has struggled with bouts of wildness and always seems to wiggle his way out of jams. It’s a nice skill to have, moxie, but eventually he’ll blow a big save and that could snowball. He’s also going to be a constant injury risk at his age. J.P. Howell is still learning to be a long man and while he’s done some admirable OJT, he is likely to hit a wall at some point this summer. How those 3 respond will be the biggest factor in the Rays march to the playoffs.
Negative: No power. None. Zero. Eric Hinske has been impressive and it’s not out of the realm of possibility to believe he can continue at his current pace, but unless Carlos Pena gets healthy and plays at 75-85% of his 2007 performance, Hinske is all the Rays have as a viable power threat. Evan Longoria is developing, but he needs to bring his OBP above 330 before I can consider him a power threat in the mold of A-Rod, Giambi, Posada, Matsui, Drew, Ortiz, Ramirez and even Damon. It’s not like BJ Upton, Carl Crawford, Akinori Iwamura and Dioner Navarro are going to start driving balls consistently any time soon. Upton has that potential long-term, but the other 3 are what they are, which is great because they all get on base (CC’s brutal start notwithstanding) and play good defense and can run, but their still not going to give you more than 3 or 4 bases a game.
False Negative: Crawford is the obvious one. He’ll be better than a sub-700 OPS in the 2nd half. But I think a lot of people look beyond Shields and Kazmir and don’t believe the Rays have rotation depth. Wrong. Matt Garza and Andy Sonnanstine are fantastic 3/4 guys that limit walks and home runs and rarely, if ever, provide those “bombed out in the first three innings” starts that back-end AL starters are prone to. Garza has huge potential to be another No. 2-type arm in the rotation, he just needs to start finishing batters and showing the strikeout potential he has in all stages of his baseball life. Oh…and David Price is lurking for a Joba-like debut this September.
Boston Red Sox
Positive: David Ortiz might be out with a season-ending wrist injury? Ha, no problem. JD Drew will start playing like, well, JD Drew should and Sean Casey will play like its 1999. The Red Sox have a solid offense that is going to be able to go toe-to-toe with the healthy Yankees when Ortiz is back.
False Positive: Nobody, absolutely NOBODY, is going to win at an .800 clip at home for the season. The Red Sox know how to use Fenway to a huge advantage, but 100+ years of baseball trends say that their 18-22 road record is a better indicator of realism than their 28-7 home record. Maybe I’m wrong, but I say that levels out, and while finishing with a .680-.700 winning percentage at home (which I believe they’ll do) is admirable, it doesn’t mean jack crap if you are winning at a .450 clip on the road.
Negative: Justin Masterson is a nice story right now, but he’s winning with a defense-independent ERA near 5 and an astronomically low batting average on balls in play of .185. Once those two numbers partner up, you’ll see Justin right at where he should be…which right now is an ERA of 4.5-4.8. He’ll be a fine No. 5 in the 2nd half, but he’s not going to be the guy you want out there in the ALCS. Either Jon Lester is going to have to continue pitching like he has (could happen, but he could also go the other way considering his age and lack of experience throwing a full season in the majors) or Dice-K will have to get healthy and turn around his horrendous early-season control (38 BB in 66 IP) and pray his absurd luck (.237 BABIP, 4 HR allowed) continues.
False Negative: Dustin Pedroia and a healthy Ortiz are going to produce much better than they have to this point. Much like the Yankees, consider there is nobody besides Casey producing out of the realm of reality, and you see a dominant lineup in late July when everyone is healthy.
FINAL ODDS ON MISSING THE PLAYOFFS
New York: 5-2